Don’t miss that squirrel!

Turning your reporter’s notebook into a camera
February 18, 2009, 8:58 pm
Filed under: descriptive writing | Tags: , , ,

Let’s face it, most of us don’t have the luxury of a photographic memory. That’s why we have reporter’s notebooks.

When covering a story, it’s all too easy to focus primarily on filling those wide-ruled pages with quotes and a few lines of background info. 

But try this: For every quote you take down, add a line of description that will serve as a reminder of a small detail in the scene. Maybe you’ll add it later, or perhaps there won’t be room. The important thing is that you have it just in case.

Even if you don’t use these details in the story, seeing them as you go through your notes might also serve to trigger other thoughts that will help you add depth as you write.

You’re essentially turning your notebook into a camera, using a few keywords to help you create mental snapshots to put you back into that moment when you start to actually write.

Zoom in for your first photo: Jot down a detail you see up close. Then pull back a little to a medium shot: Scribble a note about something you see nearby. Pull back even farther for a wide shot: Quickly scan the room for anything that might add a larger perspective or context to the story.  

Let’s say you’re covering a feature story about a pro-wrestler and interviewing him in a gym where he trains. 

Pro wrestler Triple H, courtesy of Flickr

Pro wrestler Triple H, courtesy of Flickr

You get a quote: “Sometimes I’ve been thrown on my back more times than I’ve gotten on my feet,” he says. Now zoom in: maybe a detail about his feet or his shoes, since it might fit well here. Or maybe you jot a note about his hands as he talks, adding that his fingers are taped. (It might be worth a quick question later, to find out why they’re taped that way.)

Then another quote: “Most people think those ropes are soft, but they feel like razorwire when you hit ’em hard,” he says.  Now a medium shot of something nearby. Obviously it would be a good spot to note a detail about the ropes, but if none are in sight, then look for other items a few feet away. Perhaps there’s something unique about his gym bag, or maybe you can see the amount of weight on a barbell he uses. 

Third quote: “I never thought I’d do this for 20 years. I wanted to be a professional actor.” Now go wide: Search out something in the room that might fit with this thought and make a note of it.

Maybe it’s a poster with the wrestler’s face on it, and you might notice a correlation between that poster and the way a movie poster looks. Or maybe there’s some other object in the room that he uses in his wrestling career which you can use to show a stark contrast — or a close comparison — to a professional actor. 

Rinse, wash and repeat. Follow this pattern throughout your interview and see what you get. Of course you won’t use everything you jot down, but there might be one or two details in there that could become part of a powerful lede or serve as a nice bit of symbolism to cap off the story.


Make your breaking news ‘scream’ with narrative
February 11, 2009, 8:16 pm
Filed under: Writing on deadline | Tags: , ,

Many journalists (and some online news readers) may disagree, but I don’t believe that breaking news has to be so…cut and dry.

A writer can use effective narrative techniques while getting the story out in rapid time. At the very least, you certainly can update that first cut-and-dry breaking news bulletin throughout the day until it reads like a true story instead of a report.

It does involve more creativity to weave some narrative or gripping description into an 8- to 10-inch story that you only have 15 minutes to file.

But this is an acquired talent that will separate you from the average journalist who files the story, goes back and adds a line or two to make the editor happy, then moves on.

The basic rule is the same no matter the deadline or word count: Always think to yourself why the reader should care. What unique way can I tell this story to pull the reader in?

Let’s assume we have to file a breaking news report about a double murder. If you don’t have time to go to the scene, there are ways to seek out details that paint the picture. Take five minutes to call the neighbors who live on either side of the murder site, for example. Ask them not only what they saw, heard, etc., but also what they were feeling.

Here’s the difference between relying primarily on the police report vs. a combination of using the police report and talking to a neighbor:

1. A Phoenix man allegedly stabbed his wife and mother-in-law early Monday, then led police on a foot chase before his arrest, police said.

2. Jeff Gables says he woke up to the sound of a woman “screaming bloody murder” on Monday and looked out his bedroom window to see his neighbor stabbing his wife on their front lawn.

Gables recalls freezing in fear for about 10 seconds, then calling police. Less than an hour later, David Geer of Phoenix was arrested for allegedly murdering his wife and mother-in-law, then leading police on a foot chase.

Of course, there are dozens of other ways to spice up a story on deadline. Adding a storytelling element to breaking news coverage isn’t back-breaking work. It just involves some dedication and ingenuity.

What color dress was she wearing?
February 4, 2009, 11:08 pm
Filed under: descriptive writing | Tags: , , ,

One of the first tips many seasoned writers will suggest to help jazz up a story is to add “more color” to it.

I remember contributing several short vignettes for a news story about festivities on a horribly rainy New Year’s Eve several years ago. Gannett Co. at the time was on a big push to insert “more color” into every story, and the misinterpretation of this demand quickly got out of hand.

I called my editor to phone in a vignette on deadline as I slowly drove through a blinding downpour, mentioning how dangerous the conditions were on the road. Twenty minutes away from the event I’d just left, I finished reading from my soaked reporter’s notebook while trying to pull off the road. The editor asked, “That lady you quoted — what color dress was she wearing?”

I told her I couldn’t remember. “Turn around and go back. We need more color in this.”

Here’s the thing. Many stories could, in fact, benefit from more “color.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean using an adjective to say something is red, green or yellow.

Rarely is there a strong reason to mention the color of an item in your writing, unless you’re using the color to make a meaningful point. (“Surgeon John Malik works the scalpel with rhythm and purpose. The blue veins pulse in his hands as he works among a sea of red.”)

It’s more effective to focus on the tiny details that make life colorful by their essence. Look for quirks, nuances, subconsciously driven gestures which the average person might not notice. As writers, it’s our job to keep our eyes open for these little tidbits that add another layer of depth to a story.

Sometimes you’ll see them in fleeting glimmers. Other times they’ll seem like day-to-day stuff, but they’re not.

Consider: The head of an atheist group who blesses you when you sneeze. A champion cage fighter who sips coffee with his pinkie sticking up. Or this guy…


…who’s arranging his next roping competition using his BlackBerry.

About the quirky name
January 27, 2009, 2:54 pm
Filed under: General advice | Tags: , ,

He was as drunk as I’ve ever seen anyone, and I once watched a guy chug a full pint of gin.

I waited for his next words like he was an apostle. He was among the greatest journalists of his generation, and I’d finally gotten him hammered enough to share his secret to our craft.

John rocked back on his heels, less than 30 seconds from passing out and rolling under a picnic table.

In a brief moment of near-divine clarity, his voice boomed:

“When you cover a story, you have to notice everything. Every little thing. If a little squirrel jumps from a branch to another branch way off in the background, you need to see it…”

He grabbed my shoulders and shook me, his bloodshot eyes wobbling in different directions.

“Whatever you do: Don’t! Miss! That! Squirrel!

That’s the best writing advice I’ve heard.

My goal with this blog is to share ways I’ve learned to hone and apply this eye for detail to create powerful journalism. I believe it’s possible to tell a great narrative story in the same amount of time and words that it takes to file a standard “report”-like article on nearly any subject.

Now let’s keep our eyes out for the squirrels.